Experience the Mystical Music of Hildegard Von Bingen: The First Known Composer in History (1098 – 1179)

The Ger­man abbess, vision­ary, mys­tic poet, com­pos­er, and heal­er Hilde­gard von Bin­gen “has become a sym­bol to dis­parate groups,” writes Bri­an Wise at WQXR, includ­ing “fem­i­nists and the­olo­gians, musi­col­o­gists and new-age med­i­cine prac­ti­tion­ers. Her chants have been set to tech­no rhythms; her writ­ings on nutri­tion have yield­ed count­less cook­books (even though she nev­er left behind a sin­gle recipe.)” She did leave behind an astound­ing body of work that has made her improb­a­bly pop­u­lar for a 12th cen­tu­ry nun, with a live­ly pres­ence on Face­book and her own Twit­ter account, @MysticHildy (“very into tech­nol­o­gy, love to trav­el”).

Her fame rests not only on the beau­ty of her work, but on her extra­or­di­nary life sto­ry and the fact that she is the first com­pos­er to whose work we can put a name. She was born in 1098 in Berm­er­sheim, the tenth child of a noble fam­i­ly. It being the cus­tom then to ded­i­cate a tenth child (a “tithe”) to the church, Hilde­gard was sent to the Monastery of Saint Dis­i­bo­den­berg to become a Bene­dic­tine nun under the tute­lage of Jut­ta, a high­ly-respect­ed anchoress.

“After Jutta’s death,” notes Ford­ham University’s source­book, “when Hilde­gard was 38 years of age, she was elect­ed the head of the bud­ding con­vent liv­ing with­in cramped walls of the anchor­age.”

Through­out her life, Hilde­gard had expe­ri­enced visions, begin­ning at the age of 3. (Oliv­er Sacks attrib­uted these to migraines). At age 42, she had a pow­er­ful expe­ri­ence that rad­i­cal­ly changed her life. She described this moment in her writ­ings:

And it came to pass … when I was 42 years and 7 months old, that the heav­ens were opened and a blind­ing light of excep­tion­al bril­liance flowed through my entire brain. And so it kin­dled my whole heart and breast like a flame, not burn­ing but warm­ing… and sud­den­ly I under­stood of the mean­ing of expo­si­tions of the books…

Over­whelmed, and fear­ful of writ­ing down her visions “because of doubt and a low opin­ion of myself and because of diverse say­ings of men,” she nonethe­less found encour­age­ment from lead­ers in the church to write and cir­cu­late her the­o­log­i­cal work: “With papal impri­matur, Hilde­gard was able to fin­ish her first vision­ary work Scivias (“Know the Ways of the Lord”) and her fame began to spread through Ger­many.” Soon after, she relo­cat­ed her con­vent to Bin­gen, and began an incred­i­bly pro­duc­tive peri­od in the last few decades of her life.

All told, she turned out an “extra­or­di­nary array of cre­ative trea­sures,” writes Wise: a dra­ma in verse, “more than 70 musi­cal works, med­ical texts filled with 2,000 reme­dies, writ­ings pre­sent­ing fem­i­nine arche­types for the divine.” Although she held to ortho­dox doc­trine, oppos­ing the Cathars, for exam­ple, and oth­er “schis­mat­ics,” she was a mys­tic whose ideas far exceed­ed the cramped the­o­log­i­cal con­fines of so many male coun­ter­parts. “Hildegard’s visions caused her to see humans as ‘liv­ing sparks’ of God’s love, com­ing from God as day­light comes from the sun,” writes Fr. Don Miller. “This uni­ty was not appar­ent to many of her con­tem­po­raries.”

Her tran­scen­dent sight did not blind her to the diverse beau­ty of the nat­ur­al world. “She not only had faith,” says Ger­man direc­tor and actress Mar­garethe Von Trot­ta, who made a 2010 biopic about Hilde­gard, “but she was so curi­ous. Today, per­haps she would have been a sci­en­tist because she did so much research on heal­ing peo­ple, on plants and ani­mals.” Hildegard’s tal­ent, intel­lect, and force­ful per­son­al­i­ty made her a for­mi­da­ble per­son, “the only known female fig­ure of her time,” writes Music Acad­e­my Online, “who achieved such intel­lec­tu­al stature and whose con­tri­bu­tions have had last­ing impact.” The revived inter­est in her music coin­cid­ed with “the ‘new age’ chant craze in the mid-1990s,” but Hildegard’s work dif­fers marked­ly from medieval chant writ­ten for male voic­es.

Vary­ing from “high­ly syl­lab­ic to dra­mat­ic melis­mas (swirling melodies on a sin­gle open syl­la­ble,” Melanie Spiller explains, “her music is quite dis­tinc­tive and eas­i­ly rec­og­niz­able, with unsu­al ele­ments for the time, includ­ing exceed­ing an octave by a fourth or fifth, and large and fre­quent leaps.” Her music also func­tioned as “a vehi­cle for her own mys­ti­cal expe­ri­ence,” and it con­tin­ues to move listeners—of faith and no faith—who hear in her song cel­e­bra­tions of the divine­ly fem­i­nine and the won­ders of the nat­ur­al world.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

1200 Years of Women Com­posers: A Free 78-Hour Music Playlist That Takes You From Medieval Times to Now

A YouTube Chan­nel Com­plete­ly Devot­ed to Medieval Sacred Music: Hear Gre­go­ri­an Chant, Byzan­tine Chant & More

Mashup Weaves Togeth­er 57 Famous Clas­si­cal Pieces by 33 Com­posers: From Bach to Wag­n­er

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (7)
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  • sfemet says:

    I was intro­duced to Hilde­gard through the Anony­mous 4 record­ing: 11,000 Vir­gins-Chants for the Feast of St. Ursu­la, released in 1997. It still has a promi­nent place in my CD col­lec­tion. Thanks for giv­ing oth­er read­ers a chance to dis­cov­er her.

  • Dale Rice says:

    Music from Heav­en fil­tered by Hilde­gard and heard by our own ears and mind. Solace.

  • Dan says:

    I’m pret­ty sure this title should read “First known FEMALE com­pos­er.” No?

  • Moeskido says:

    It’s amaz­ing what some peo­ple can accom­plish when freed from the oblig­a­tion of an ear­ly death from per­pet­u­al child­birth.

  • Rachel says:


  • Jack says:

    No, she’s the first known com­pos­er peri­od.

  • James says:

    Saint Hilde­gard was a woman of God who had many tal­ents! We should strive to fol­low her exam­ple.
    To Moeski­do — Its amaz­ing what some peo­ples chil­dren can accom­plish when their par­ents are blessed with a devo­tion to the love of child­birth. Hilde­gard was the 10th child!

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